“Promise of Water” from Angels of Light’s We Are Him (Young God; 2007) is a song about power and how it seeps into every pore of our being, infiltrating our bodies and minds such that we reproduce and redistribute it with every action and thought. As Michael Gira charges in the opening verse, “Now they live in your head and they travel your veins/ Every word that you speak is a word they have made.” (“They,” of course, refers to the class or group that wields the most power at a particular historical moment, i.e., the dominant power.) Language — how we pronounce, spell, and use words, and so on — is the fundamental tool for power, for it determines how its agents speak, think, move, communicate, and “see” the past, present, and future world(s) and their position(s) within it. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Power structures language so that it limits the world, defining its boundaries, possibilities, meanings, and so on. Later, in his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote that “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.” Language, then, implies an entire form of life, for it relates things to other things in the world such that they “mean” something; language places everything in its right place, as Radiohead might say.
At least one objective of experimental musicians is to challenge traditional musical languages, to disrupt the rules that dominate how their chosen instrument(s) speak, and to create alternative approaches to them that result in unpredictable idiomatic outcomes. The radical possibility of creating a new language that shrugs off the old one is what motivates creative artists. The challenge is to think and practice beyond the limits of traditional musical languages, which requires evading the multifarious agents that police those limits, guarding the borders in order to prevent rule-breaking and to maintain the legitimacy of the established idiom. But when creative artists manage to sneak past the border police and produce new languages of sound and new possibilities for their instrument(s), they simultaneously imagine an entirely fresh form of life, a wholly new mode of being in the world.
Christine Sehnaoui is a self-taught alto saxophonist who is critiquing the instrument’s traditional limits and modes of speaking while materializing new forms of life through her singular saxophone-language. Born in Lebanon but with a home base in Paris, 32-year-old Sehnaoui has worked with experimental multi-instrumentalist Pascal Buttus, guitarist Andy Moor, saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, percussionist Michael Zerang, pianist Magda Maya, Lebanese improvisers like Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Sehnaoui, and many others on both recordings and international tours. She also works in the interstices of sound and movement, collaborating on many occasions for contemporary dance projects, and since 2001 has co-organized Irtijal, an annual improvised music festival in Lebanon. Implementing extended techniques, she explores new tonal modalities for the instrument, normally without a mouthpiece and emphasizing a plurality of breath-centric and tongue attacks to produce a sound-world that defies the established conception of the idiomatic possibilities of the alto saxophone.
On La Vase/Slikke, Sehnaoui is joined by Swedish-born, veteran experimental percussionist Sven-Åke Johansson, who has been working in creative music circles since the 1960s, and runs SÅJ Records, which released this limited-run LP. He played drums on Peter Brötzmann’s pivotal Machine Gun Sessions alongside Han Bennink, Evan Parker, and Willem Breuker, and has worked with Alex von Schlippenbach, Manfred Schoof, Derek Bailey, Mats Gustafsson, Sten Sandell, and a long list of leading experimental artists. His playing on La Vase/Slikke emphasizes friction and texture, shifting from high-pitch squeals to tense, long scrapes and chopped-up blasts of unidentifiable percussive noise. His technique disregards familiar modes of playing, treating the task anew in order to construct a truly alien and challenging world of sound. For this album, and as Johansson has been known to do for many years, cardboard boxes are used in place of a traditional drum kit.
The album was recorded live with no overdubs, though it sounds as if there are multiple layers and textures that would require numerous additions. The range of sounds that both artists are able to produce with their instruments is stunning: volcanic bubbles, bat-like squeaks, grinding metal, digital glitch, temple gongs, air conditioner hums, drill bit shimmers, owl calls, clawing mice, droning machines on the edge of explosion, the clicking spine and ripping brain of a panic attack victim, fire. If forced to categorize using established titles, “noise” would be most applicable. Though, despite the brutality that characterizes many moments of the duo’s playing, there is a profound delicacy and robust notion of empty space that defies the aggression and overpowering denseness of noise proper.
Only at a few instances does Sehnaoui emit anything resembling a traditional note, and when she does they are spliced up, deconstructed blasts. By blowing through the neck cork with different degrees of breath and angle, she’s capable of exploiting her alto in ways no others have previously attempted, and by inserting objects into the bell she can manipulate the force of the outgoing blasts, which results in a plurality of fresh sound possibilities. As an autodidact, Sehnaoui has not been brought up and programmed within an academic tradition — jazz, experimental, European, North American, or otherwise — and this undoubtedly has provided her the necessary space to explore the alto without the burdens of traditional sax or woodwind idioms.
La Vase/Slikke is an exemplary document of the theory and practice that motivate experimental musics. Listeners will have a hard time finding anything quite as unique and exhilarating, as unfamiliar and confounding. With alto and cardboard, Sehnaoui and Johansson have produced sounds as dangerous and terrifying, if not more so, with acoustic instruments than any that Wolf Eyes or Yellow Swans could with their most abrasive electronic arsenals. Even if you disagree with the claim that the limits have been transcended, there’s no denying that these two creative artists have done some serious, irreparable damage to their cage, and they’ve certainly managed to piss off and bloody a few border police in the process.